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The Twilight Zone 3.24 – To Serve Man

You might ask yourself, wasn’t our son a little young to start watching The Twilight Zone? And honestly, there have been times that the cultural divide of nearly sixty years has seemed awfully vast for such a small boy, but I wanted to get started when he was six because the twist of “To Serve Man” is one of those that just about everybody learns before they actually see the story.

I’m genuinely curious, readers. If you’re in your forties or younger, did you ever get to see this unspoiled? It’s like the end of Citizen Kane. If you didn’t see this in the sixties, you heard the twist before you could see it.

And so I thought I was able to sneak this under the bar and apparently I failed. Our son exclaimed “I knew it! I knew it!” And this is not how he responds to the devilish twists of The Twilight Zone. He insisted that he knew where this one was going as soon as he heard the title. So this morning, I was looking over a gargantuan list of movies and TV shows that have referenced the Kanamits’ cookbook. It’s in Madagascar. Madafreakinggascar! My wife was hurrying to finish making her lunch and get out the door. “Has he seen Madagascar in afterschool care?!” I grumbled. “That would explain it,” she said. “He did seen very sincere last night.”

And to think I gave that dumb movie a pass for the wonderful gag about flinging poo at Tom Wolfe!

Anyway, the surprisingly large cast of “To Serve Man” includes Lloyd Bochner and Susan Cummings, with Richard Kiel as the main Kanamit and Joseph Ruskin, uncredited, as the alien’s voice. The screenplay was written by Rod Serling from a story by Damon Knight. Some of the special effects were repurposed from Ray Harryhausen’s 1956 movie Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, which is a much better movie than you’d expect from one with a name that silly. It’s a pretty good episode.

You know, I’ve held off showing him Planet of the Apes because the gorillas are so amazingly cruel. I’ll try to accept the probability that some fool cartoon with breakdancing pigs or linedancing antelopes has referenced the end of that one as well.

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Clash of the Titans (1981)

I remember the summer of 1981 pretty well. That was when I was old enough to go to the movies with a friend without a grownup. That was quite a summer for films. I remember going to see For Your Eyes Only, Dragonslayer, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Clash of the Titans several times. Five bucks would get me a matinee, popcorn, Coke, and a complaint from my mother that movies used to cost a dime.

Grown-up movie critics thought that Clash of the Titans was old hat, but not to this ten year-old. You may recall that Tom Hanks once said that Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest movie ever made. Objectively, Clash isn’t as good, but it had absolutely everything that ten year-old me could ask for. There are monsters, blood, angry Greek gods, a skeletal ferryman, and seven or eight seconds of nudity. This was the best use of five dollars anybody had ever come up with.

Honestly, this really is a little old hat, and perhaps not Ray Harryhausen’s finest film, but it’s still entertaining, and since he was planning to retire after it, it’s a high point, just not his highest. It’s another of his classic quest stories, this time drawn from the myths and legends of ancient Greece, and the visual effects are as good as ever. Laurence Olivier, Maggie Smith, and Ursula Andress scheme and backstab on Mount Olympus, and on Earth, Harry Hamlin, Burgess Meredith, Siân Phillips, Judy Bowker, and Tim Piggot-Smith get caught up in their machinations.

None of them get caught as badly as Neil McCarthy, whom our son remembers fondly as Sam from the first series of Catweazle. For the crime of slaughtering Zeus’s winged horses, Calibos is turned into a deformed, demonic creature, portrayed by McCarthy in the closeups and by stop-motion animation in longer shots. During their first fight, Perseus slices off one of Calibos’s hands. The villain replaces his lost hand with a small trident, and, proving that he wasn’t paying the strictest attention in the world, when we see Calibos later, our son asked “Why does he have a fork?”!

It did, mercifully, register that Burgess Meredith was playing the role of Perseus’s friend, the poet and playwright Ammon. That might be because I pointed out his name in the credits. “You know who that is, right? He’s been in three Twilight Zones and he was the Penguin in Batman, okay?” I’ll get this kid recognizing character actors, by Zeus.

But overall, he was not quite as wild about this as I was as a kid. Marie suggested that I was a couple of years older during my weeks of seeing this again and again, and it’s probably also true that the ferryman Charon blew my mind because, in 1981, I was a bigger fan of Marvel Comics’ Ghost Rider than any other boy in America. I just liked skeletons a whole lot then. Our son even protested that the Kraken’s four arms were excessive.

But another reason this wasn’t a mammoth success is that this is one of those rare films that actually opens with the scene that he loved the most. The Kraken’s destruction of the city of Argos was the high point, and the rest of the movie, even the amazing battle against Medusa, didn’t compare. He did, however, get all hunched up and worried during that fight. Then he complained afterward that Medusa didn’t use “her eye weapon” as much in the fight as he wanted.

In fairness, though, he has already seen Jason of the Argonauts.

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Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977)

Because it was a box office flop, Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger seems to be overlooked, but holy anna, did I ever watch the heck out of this movie when I was a child. HBO showed it twenty times and my kid brother and I saw at least nineteen of the screenings. He even had a dream once where the ending was different, and when we saw it the next time and a big Ray Harryhausen monster didn’t survive – it never did – he started crying because he was convinced that “they” had changed the ending.

Anyway, since Ray Harryhausen movies took a heck of a long time to make, he and Charles Schneer began preproduction for the third Sinbad movie while the second one was still in theaters. By the time it was finally released, Star Wars was in the process of changing everything. It’s a fine adventure film, headlined by Patrick Wayne as Sinbad, with Jane Seymour and Patrick Troughton in good supporting roles, and a terrific villain played by Margaret Whiting, who is just awesome and gives a splendid performance. Apart from the memorable monsters, Sinbad movies had great bad guys. But the movie was seen as an old-fashioned throwback, and audiences in 1977 wanted outer space action.

Strangely, Taryn Powers, playing the daughter of Patrick Troughton’s character, is second-billed here despite a much smaller role than many of the other actors. She is the daughter of Tyrone Powers and didn’t have a really long career, but she must have had a good agent.

Our son was a little bit leery of this one, because while his memory isn’t exceptional, he definitely remembers the previous two movies being scary. This time out, the stop-motion monsters aren’t quite as memorable, though. It starts with some demon-things that interact with the live-action photography better than any previous Harryhausen fight scene, even bringing down a tent atop the human actors by striking the pole with a sword. But there’s a bronze clockwork minotaur that just steers a boat, and a big wasp whose actual size we can’t determine until it’s been killed, and a great big walrus, for some reason. But half an hour before the end of the movie, we meet a strange ally in the form of a grunting troglodyte, and “Trog” might be Harryhausen’s finest monster to that point.

But I specified monster for a reason. Sinbad’s big quest this time is to save an old friend, the rightful caliph of the city of Charak, who has been turned into a baboon. There are a couple of scenes with a prop monkey, but otherwise the animal is entirely stop-motion and the effect is just amazing. It’s almost as though Harryhausen decided to challenge himself by animating something with so much hair, and to have it be so expressive atop that is just icing. A crowd of skeletons meant less work.

Anyway, his verdict was that, like the previous Sinbad movies, he liked the film, but it was scary. I like it a lot: Wayne and Seymour are great together, Troughton is just about the most watchable actor around, Bernard Kay has a small part and he’s always worth seeing, and Margaret Whiting is just superb.

Weirdly, another film that I watched a dozen times on HBO, a few years later, was John Boorman’s Excalibur. I haven’t seen either movie in decades, and somehow my dwindling familiarity with the films long ago confused a mid-movie fate for Whiting, where her transformation from a seagull back into a human isn’t 100% effective, with that bit in Excalibur where Helen Mirren ages fifty or sixty years. Memory’s a weird thing, isn’t it?

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The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973)

Fifteen years after making the first, and, to most people, the definitive Sinbad movie, Ray Harryhausen was back with a movie that many seem to suggest is one of the lesser films in his career. But man alive, I think it’s terrific. It may not be as great as Jason and the Argonauts – what is? – but I enjoyed this even more than the original Sinbad movie, and John Phillip Law, who plays Sinbad in this one, is really fun.

I casually mentioned to our son before we sat down this morning that he should pay attention to two of the actors in particular. Tom Baker, of course, we’ll be seeing much more of in the future. Here, he plays the villainous Prince Koura, an evil magician with designs on the throne of Marabia and far more, and he’s really fun. At no point does Koura do anything heroic or appear as anything other than a black-hearted sorcerer. He’s completely hypnotic, and it beggars belief that he was so short of work in 1973 that he was thinking about calling it quits. Eight years later, work would be a little scarce because of typecasting and something of an industry reputation for being, shall we say, mercurial and temperamental, but every casting director in London should have been phoning him in ’73.

And then there’s Caroline Munro, and I’m planning to see her at least twice more for this blog this year, and possibly a couple more times if I decide to write about James Bond and Hammer movies down the line, when our son’s a little older. I think she was one of the most gorgeous actresses around in the seventies, and I’d watch her in anything, so it’s kind of helpful that she kept making such fun movies that decade.

One of those Hammer films was Captain Kronos – Vampire Hunter, which was among those films that Brian Clemens made during his brief period working in features between his TV series The Avengers and Thriller. Since Munro was under contract with Hammer at the time, Clemens was encouraged to cast her in Kronos, and was so impressed with her that while he was working on the story for The Golden Voyage of Sinbad with Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles Scheer, he lobbied for her to take the lead female role. Honestly, there’s not a great deal to her part here, but she looks terrific.

The most curious casting, though, is Sinbad himself. John Phillip Law had been earmarked for greatness just a few years before this, and in 1968 alone had starred in three different cult films: Barbarella, Danger: Diabolik, and Skidoo. But while these odd films have fans today, at the time, they were all box office bombs. He was a sex symbol, but his career had stalled. This film was a hit, but it didn’t get him any meaty roles. He worked through the seventies, but mainly in cheap Italian action movies. I think it’s a shame that he didn’t come back for the next Sinbad movie four years later.

But you want to know about the special effects and what our son thought. As befits a Harryhausen movie, anything can happen here, and some of it is completely unpredictable. Other things are ever-so-gently telegraphed by what we know from previous Harryhausen films and what we’ve seen Koura do. I was unfamiliar with this movie and didn’t even look at the package art with more than a glance because I dislike spoilers so much. This wasn’t a case like Jason and the Argonauts where I spent the entire film waiting for that mob of skeletons to get reanimated. When Koura and his henchman get kidnapped by a green-painted tribe of cultists who worship Kali, they make the horrible mistake of bringing him into a cave with a ten-foot tall statue of their goddess, made of stone and with six arms. She’s there on the cover of the DVD, but that’s not why I knew she’d come to life. It’s the way the camera let me know it was coming.

Our son’s favorite monsters, meanwhile, were a pair of hideous, winged “spies,” brought to life from paper and Koura’s blood. His favorite scenes were the two bits where these creatures were killed. He especially loved seeing the second one brought down.

Overall, this whole film was one of the best and most entertaining scary experiences that he’s ever had. He says that he really liked this movie, but insists that it was not exciting. It was just plain scary, full stop. Between all of the monsters and the last-second escapes, he was in heaven, but he was also under his blanket. One thing’s for sure: he was never bored, not at all. There’s just enough humor for an occasional gag, but the stakes are pitched just perfectly for kids: abstract “good” versus “evil,” with no ramifications or subtlety. When a new pair of monsters shows up for one of the last battles, and Koura intervenes on behalf of the evil one, it’s the closest thing to a complicated allegory in the film. Otherwise it’s just wild, delicious popcorn made by a very talented team and we enjoyed it a lot.

Incidentally, there’s a very odd little bit of foreshadowing for a movie that hadn’t been made yet. Douglas Wilmer co-stars here as the magical Grand Vizier of Marabia, and wears a golden mask that completely hides his identity throughout the film. I briefly wondered why in the world you’d cast such a familiar name and face as Douglas Wilmer and then hide him under gold for a whole picture, and then I remembered that’s precisely what happened in 1980, when the makers of that Flash Gordon movie cast Peter Wyngarde as Max von Sydow’s right-hand man and hid him under gold as well! If you ever wonder why, I think they got the idea from here.

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Jason and the Argonauts (1963)

We hadn’t sat down for a Sunday morning movie in a while, but today we picked back up with a fabulous one. Tom Hanks once said that Jason and the Argonauts is the greatest film of all time, and I think Hanks knows movies more than I do. He may be right; it’s certainly very fun.

Our five year-old critic got squirmy in the middle, and when the traitor on board the Argo, played by Gary Raymond, revealed himself, he had no idea what the heck was going on. But to be fair, Douglas Wilmer’s evil king tapped Raymond to spy on Jason, the true heir to the throne of Thessaly, almost an hour previously and Raymond didn’t actually do anything nasty after that, so we can forgive him for being baffled by the swordfight.

We also needed to pause early on after realizing that our son had virtually no contact with Greek mythology prior to this, and didn’t know who these gods were. I think that Ares and Hephaestus are in an episode of Justice League Unlimited, but other than that, I don’t know that today’s popular culture really references these beings much anymore. Niall MacGinnis plays Zeus and Honor Blackman, in between her two seasons as Cathy Gale on The Avengers, plays Hera. The two of them take an interest in Jason after competing prophecies and prayers attract their attention.

I really like the way that the film addresses a desire to live in a world without the interference of gods. There’s an interesting bit where the Olympians consider the wisdom in striking down every heathen who blasphemes.

Also appearing in the movie are Todd Armstrong, who never had the career he deserved, as Jason, Nancy Kovack as the priestess Medea, Laurence Naismith, who would later manipulate The Persuaders to do his bidding, as the shipbuilder Argus, Nigel Green as a most unusual (but still very effective) Hercules, and Patrick Troughton – didn’t we just see him last night? – as a blind soothsayer. Our son didn’t recognize him, of course. Troughton was such a chameleon.

The movie’s directed by Don Chaffey, who mainly did television work, but also Pete’s Dragon for Disney, and it is one gorgeous, beautiful movie. It’s also a movie where the director knows when to back off and let Ray Harryhausen take over.

Wow. Okay, it’s true that jaded eyes can spot the difference in film stock whenever something magic is about to happen. This actually works against the beautiful modern restoration of this movie, with the blues in particular so vibrant that even in thirteen-degree January Chattanooga, we warmed up just looking at the sea and the sky. Nevertheless, the special effects are completely amazing for their day and remain astonishing.

I also love how all the stop-motion beasts in this movie have their own body language. The giant statue of Talos is slow and lumbering, the harpies are blurs of motion, the hydra’s heads and tail are each doing their own thing, and the seven (seven!!!!) skeletons who attack Jason, Phalerus, and Castor are unstoppable. Well, it’s possible they might have dispatched one of them.

Apart from his fit of mid-movie boredom, our son really enjoyed this film. He leapt out of his skin when the hydra showed up, started chewing on his security blanket when the skeletons attack, and might have swallowed the whole thing if Jason hadn’t made it out of that. He said that his favorite part of the film was when they use the golden fleece (or “golden cloak thing” in his words) to bring Medea back to life.

I dunno what my favorite part of the movie is. Possibly the skeletons. That animation is so darn good. Sure, they could do it on a computer now, but just imagine the work that went into matching all that up with the live-action footage. We’ll see a few more Harryhausen films down the line, but they might all be in this one’s long shadow. It’s a fantastic movie.

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The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

This film is so fun! It’s the first of three Ray Harryhausen movies about the wild adventures of Sinbad the Sailor, and it’s got dangerous monsters, evil magicians, beautiful princesses, and a palpable sense of danger. When you’re an adult, you’ve long passed the point where you understand the supporting characters are going to get killed off, but our son’s right at the age where seeing the good guys die one after another raises the stakes for the hero.

That said, I’m afraid that the special effects casualties at first had him more amused than frightened. As members of Sinbad’s crew get crushed or stomped by tree-carrying monsters, or fall to their deaths from mountain peaks, he chuckled a lot. Almost comedic “waaaaah!” noises by the dead and dying probably didn’t help. But as the story went on and the stakes grew higher, I noticed a change in his chuckling, and it gave way to nervous giggles. Sinbad has a sword fight with an animated skeleton in one of the film’s signature pieces, and the tones of his laugh were entirely different. Bunched up on the couch with his knees literally knocking and his eyes wide, kids don’t come more thrilled. Five years later, of course, Harryhausen would ask “So, you liked that sword fight with one skeleton, did you?” We’ll see what our son thinks of what would come next in a few months.

In the cast, we’ve got Kerwin Matthews, who’d later play another iconic role in The Three Worlds of Gulliver, as the hero, Kathryn Grant as the heroine, Alfred Brown as the comedy sidekick, and Torin Thatcher as the villain. They’re all really good in their roles, with Thatcher doing a great turn on the “sudden but inevitable betrayal.”

This really is a “what’s not to love” movie. It’s got great actors, fabulous monsters, a memorable score by Bernard Herrmann, one of those rock bridges over a river of molten lava, terrific direction by Nathan Juran, and if our modern, jaded, and practiced eyes can spot the joins and note the change in film quality whenever a fantastic creature is about to attack the human players, the kids of 1958 sure couldn’t. Neither did today’s. This is absolutely great, escapist fun. Every kid should see this movie.

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Mysterious Island (1961)

One of my friends suggested on Facebook that we be sure to show our son some Ray Harryhausen films. Already planned and shelved and waiting to thrill him! We’ve got a couple more coming before the end of this year, but the first Harryhausen picture for our family was one that didn’t have too many wild beasts from mythology or prehistory. Mysterious Island was made by Columbia in 1961. Unofficially, it’s a sequel to Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, but we didn’t tell our son that when we got started.

The story is set across several months in 1865, beginning when three captured Union soldiers and a war correspondent escape from a prison in Richmond with a Confederate sergeant as their prisoner. They steal an observation balloon during a mammoth storm and are blown way, way off course. More than a week later, they crash on the other side of the planet. Moving that far, that fast may be the most fanciful thing in this film.

Our stranded heroes rescue two women from a shipwreck and begin the long and arduous process of building a boat to sail more than a thousand miles from this small volcanic island to New Zealand. Along the way, they battle some giant creatures, including a gargantuan crab, a bizarre bird-thing, and a small nest of very big honeybees. So what’s behind all these freaks of nature? It’s none other than Captain Nemo, who did not go down with the Nautilus in 1857 as the world believed. Instead, he steered his damaged submarine to this remote place to continue his scientific experiments in peace.

Earlier this month, I briefly mentioned an episode of Ultraman where scientists were growing mammoth vegetables, and how this trope still hasn’t happened in the real world yet. But it turns out that this idea – growing great big plants and animals to feed the world’s hungry – was one of Jules Verne’s, and a lot older than I suspected. That’s what Nemo’s up to here, and why he secretly assists the survivors from afar. With the Nautilus too damaged to travel, he seizes an opportunity to take some of his experiments back to civilization. Pirates attack the island – my, that happens a lot in the movies we watch – and Nemo sinks their ship and kills them. If they all work together, they can patch the ship and raise it under his instruction, but time is running out. That volcano will erupt soon.

The film’s a good one, if not great. I think it’s one monster shy of where it needs to be, with a little feeling of drag about fifty minutes into the action. Michael Craig is fairly awesome as the Union captain, with great support from Michael Callan, Gary Merrill, Joan Greenwood, and Beth Rogen. The stop-motion special effects are completely amazing, even if some of the processing to blend the live actors in with the creatures is fairly obvious thanks to some poor color-matching. The last, not-very-surprising, monster to appear is the most effective of all, with a great jump-out-of-your-seat moment when it opens an eye.

Columbia had an interesting problem in casting Nemo and designing the Nautilus. Disney and James Mason had completely defined the appearance of the character. He and the story were in the public domain, but Disney’s design was not. So the submarine looks ever-so-slightly different, and Herbert Lom isn’t quite James Mason, but he’s very close. He’s cold and distant, but not cruel like we could see Mason’s Nemo.

We’ve had some really odd opinions about movies and shows from the mouth of our favorite five year-old critic, but he really took the cake this time. He told us that he really liked the film and that it was awesome, but his favorite part – very frequently either the climax or the gag right before the end credits – was the “war part” at the beginning when they escape from the prison. “So your favorite scene in a movie called Mysterious Island is a scene before they actually get to the island?” Besides, he hid under a blanket when the giant crab showed up, so I know he liked that.

Nemo is killed – for real, this time, we think – when the volcano erupts, spectacularly, and the others set sail to carry on his mission of using the power of science to destroy the motives for war. But you know that you can’t keep a good antihero down, right? I’m pretty sure that we’ll see him again one of these days…

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